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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Peterloo Massacre

My current wip, Prisoner of Love: Brothers In Arms Book 8, begins with a riot. A riot that occurred in Manchester, Lancashire on August 16, 1819. Peterloo, as the resulting massacre of civilians by militia came to be called, started as a rally in support of universal suffrage in England. Only adult male owners of freehold land valued over 40 shillings could vote in 1819. After the Napoleonic Wars there was an economic depression which greatly affected the textile industry in Lancashire. The Corn Laws forced the price of food up when few could afford it by placing tariffs on foreign grain to protect English grain producers. And so the political reform movement grew in popularity in Lancashire, where so few had the vote.

There were to be speeches by several well-known orators at St. Peter's Field in Manchester that day, the most celebrated being the radical Henry Hunt. It was the crowd's enthusiastic reception of Hunt onto the makeshift stage in St. Peter's Field that prompted the local magistrates to issue a warrant for his arrest and call in the militia to arrest him. Until that point the crowd had been well-behaved and orderly. As a matter of fact, for weeks leading up to the rally citizens had been warned to be on their best behavior by organizers, even drilling to ensure an orderly arrival at St. Peter's Field for the speeches. But the entire movement for universal suffrage, and the physical proof of the numbers of disaffected people in Lancashire, worried local officials, who had tried to stop the rally from taking place several times. So it was not Hunt or the speeches, which were never heard, that prompted officials to act, but their own fears of a discontented populace.

The crowd was unarmed, the militia was not. The exact number of people killed and wounded is difficult to ascertain. Many kept their wounds a secret for fear of further retribution. Some sources claim 11-15 were killed, and anywhere from 400-700 were injured. Some were trampled by horses, some by the crowd, but most were injured by the sabers of the militia.

The number of women at Peterloo was significant. Female reform societies had recently been formed in England. There were some all-female contingents marching to St. Peter's Field that day, the ladies all dressed in white, the better to be seen. These women supported universal suffrage for MEN, but not for themselves. The women's suffrage movement had yet to take hold in England. Some eye-witness accounts indicate the militia targeted these groups of white-clad ladies, and the casualty numbers support their claims.

The heroine of my book is an enthusiastic supporter of universal suffrage. She has friends who are veterans of the Napoleonic Wars, and she is outraged that many veterans cannot vote. She goes to Manchester and dons her white dress to march, which puts her right in the middle of the massacre. The trauma of the event greatly affects her throughout the book.

Have you used actual historical events in your books? Which ones? Do you enjoy reading books that contain historical events like this? Why or why not?


Emma said...

I love it when actual events are used and I especially love it when the role of women is put front and center. History books tend to overlook 'the ladies.'

When an author is giving me the chance to see an event through someone else's eyes, I tend to grab it. Yes, the work is fiction but, sometimes, that fiction can bring you to an understanding of the time and place as no history book can. Usually, I come away with a whole new perspective--and a whole lot of questions!--and it just makes me want to dig deeper and understand 'why?'

The two pieces I'm working on involve a political assassination and a revolution, both actual events, and I hope I can make them come alive.

Samantha Kane said...

Exactly! And good luck with both your projects.